Luisa Tam
SCMP Columnist
The Naked Truth
by Luisa Tam
The Naked Truth
by Luisa Tam

How to reject unwanted sexual advances, touching and overfriendly behaviour and keep healthy boundaries

  • It can be hard to shake someone’s attention when you know each other on a professional level or have mutual friends, but it is better to act than do nothing
  • A direct conversation, maybe even with a humorous tone, can clarify that you don’t feel the same way and it’s not about to go any further

It can feel quite awkward when someone you aren’t interested in shows an interest in you, and worse still if they go on to make unwanted advances or ignore your hints of rejection.

However, some people unknowingly make unwanted romantic advances when they misread certain gestures as encouraging signals.

The line between courtship and uncomfortable romantic advances is not always clear. When carried out persistently, those unwanted advances could be interpreted as a form of sexual harassment.

Sometimes what one suitor sees as romantic pursuit may be an irritation to their uninterested love target. Often a suitor could misinterpret an innocent gesture of friendship as being an encouragement for them to continue their pursuit. In reality, it is often awkward for the target of the unwanted advances to say “no”, especially if both parties know each other on a professional level or if they have mutual friends.

It can be awkward and uncomfortable when someone you aren’t interested in shows an interest in you. But there are some simple ways to let them know how you feel. Illustration: Marcelo Duhalde

As a result, a reluctance to say “no” is often perceived as a form of invitation, acceptance or even genuine romantic interest. This can perpetuate into a cycle of increasingly unwanted advances, uncomfortable interactions, uneasiness and subtle evasion. In some cases, people who make unsolicited romantic or even sexual advances feel a sense of entitlement.

In normal situations one would assume the target would explicitly reject these advances, stamping any such move out at the start. But in reality, there are many reasons that they cannot react so decisively. A person may be concerned about repercussions, especially if they know the initiator professionally or socially. And sometimes advances can be so ambiguous that they appear, on the surface, as over-friendliness.

If the initiator holds significant social status or power, such as being a person’s boss, then rejection of their advances could be a very tricky manoeuvre.

For some, it is hard to reject another person because they do not want to hurt or embarrass them, especially if the initiator seems sincere in their romantic pursuit. And there’s always the off chance that you might have misconstrued their conduct in the first place.

The establishment of clear boundaries is important as it helps maintain good social relationships. Photo: Shutterstock

To avoid romantic misunderstandings, the rule of thumb is that both parties need to be on the same page, says Valentina Tudose, a certified hypnotherapist and relationship expert.

“If we like someone and want to show them that appreciation, it needs to be based on reciprocity – explicit signs that both parties are on the same page. The language we use to show someone we have an interest in them is called flirting and there are many ways we can do that [depending on our skills and confidence level],” Tudose explains.

“But for this communication to be productive and positive – since it involves an actual relationship between two people – it is absolutely necessary that this exchange takes into consideration the ‘receiver’ and their willingness to be appreciated in that way.”

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An unwanted advance can be considered as being when one partner, either consciously or unconsciously, ignores the fact that the other person is not receptive and/or appreciative of their attention, compliments and comments. There is also no reciprocity of feelings, Tudose adds.

Some of the most common unwanted sexual advances include catcalling, aggressively trying to gain someone’s attention, or bombarding them with email messages such as “Hey hottie, looking great in that dress today”, Tudose says. Other unwanted physical advances include someone placing their hand on your lower back, and touching your hair or face, all of which are an invasion of privacy.

Valentina Tudose, a certified hypnotherapist and relationship expert, says there are certain rules to follow to avoid romantic misunderstandings.

But how can we distinguish between over-friendly behaviour and unwanted attention or advances? Tudose says the gauge is based on the kind of relationship you have with that person, and the gender dynamics involved.

“Some people are naturally very touchy-feely and connect via physical touch. They will display this behaviour to everyone around them regardless of their gender. If it’s a man they will bear hug with other men, clap them on the back, etc,” she says.

“However, if physical contact is with a person of the opposite gender and gets too close to parts of the body associated with sex like hips, lower back, chest or face, this level of touch is socially inappropriate with people who are not considered friends or intimates or when the power dynamic is unbalanced, such as senior versus junior employee.”

The establishment of clear boundaries is of utmost importance to maintain good social relationships, Tudose says.

“Having clear boundaries around uncomfortable physical or verbal contact is very necessary in maintaining good social relationships and unfortunately it is not something that comes naturally, especially for women because very often, we hope that not saying anything or minimal body language will be taken as a ‘no’ – but usually it’s not.”

A direct conversation, maybe with a more humorous tone, can clarify that you do not really feel the same way and you’d like to maintain the relationship in the friendship space
Valentina Tudose

This springs from a fear of embarrassment and our desire to be polite, she adds.

She offers this advice: “Give clear and direct verbal feedback that you have not consented to that level of contact. Something like: ‘I am not comfortable with that. We do not know each other that well, so that kind of touching is inappropriate’ is a direct and non-ambiguous message.”

She stresses that firm verbal feedback leaves no room for misinterpretation, and even though it may put the other person in a difficult position, it will at least teach them a lesson.

And, she adds, if the serious tone is too much for that moment, a firm but humorous rejection can also work: “Wow, that’s a little too close to home there. We need to keep things professional or neutral given how little we know each other.”

Some body language that can discourage unwanted advances includes keeping oneself at a greater distance than normal from the other person – more than 4 feet (1.2 metres), for example – turning your body away, using your arms to create a shield, or crossing your legs and pointing your feet away from the person.

If the person interested in you holds significant social status, or power, such as being a person’s boss, then rejection of their advances could be very tricky. Photo: Shutterstock

When a friend or colleague is being overfriendly, Tudose says the same tips apply.

“A direct conversation, maybe with a more humorous tone, can clarify that you do not really feel the same way and you’d like to maintain the relationship in the friendship space.”

Benefits of healthy boundaries

Get a clear sense of self

Determine how we are treated by others

Help us not settle for something just because it’s available

Feel empowered and connected to our true authentic self

Able to take charge of our lives and happiness

Luisa Tam is a correspondent at the Post